Week two: fatiguing the thesaurus

“I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me.” The accepted wisdom is that aspiring writers should not artificially expand their vocabularies by looking up swanky words. Alex, the Ukrainian translator who narrates a large part of Everything Is Illuminated, would not agree. He wants to take advantage of his contact with a soi disant writer called Jonathan Safran Foer. He accompanies this American would-be author on a trip to find the village where Jonathan’s grandfather once lived, and tries to pick up some tips on writing English. He will not just correct his language, he will improve it. Without realising what semantic mischief it will do, Jonathan has given him a thesaurus and advised him to use it, “when my words appeared too petite, or not befitting”. Alex is true to this sage counsel: “I am burdened to recite my good appearance. I am unequivocally tall . . . My eyes are blue and resplendent.” “My second tongue is not so premium.”

He is certainly busy fatiguing that thesaurus in an effort to remedy his deficiencies. Most critics have agreed that Alex’s ambitiously bad English is the best thing about the novel. It is enjoyable because it is ambitious.

Using the thesaurus allows him to find words related to those he should be using, but not synonymous with them. “An American in Ukraine is so flaccid to recognise.” (“Easy” would be too easy.) “I desired to experience volumes. And I would be electrical to meet an American.” Electrical is his lexical excitement. His sentences bubble with his enthusiasm at corresponding with “the hero”, as he calls the author. “I luxuriated the receipt of your letter. You are always so rapid to write to me. This will be a lucrative thing for when you are a real writer and not an apprentice.”

It is Alex’s enterprising English that produces the novel’s apparently pretentious title. Commenting on the sections of the novel that Jonathan Safran Foer is sending him as he composes them, Alex can only say that he is “ravished”. “I do not have any additional luminous remarks, because I must possess more of the novel in order to lumin.” “Illumination” is Alex’s metaphor for the explanation a story can finally offer. Resisting the temptation to “cast off your writing into the garbage”, he reads onwards “and all became illuminated”.

It is not uncommon for novels to have narrators with limited linguistic resources (especially the case with teenage or child narrators), but it is rare to have a narrator whose English is wildly incorrect. Xiaolu Guo’s 2007 novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers did something similar, employing a narrator, Z, who has an incomplete command of English. (The author claimed that the bad English was based on entries in a diary that she kept as an immigrant to England.) She too makes Roget her unreliable guide to the mysteries of her adopted language, though at least she recognises its unreliability. “Thesaurus only make me more confusing.”

Bad English in her case, as in Alex’s, allows for a kind of disarming candour. Foer’s narrator signs off his letters, “Guilelessly, Alexander”. “I am homely, and also severely funny, and these are winning things.” His English may cloud his meaning, but its badness makes it nearly impossible for him to evade the truth or find a euphemism. He is not exactly antisemitic, for instance, but his English is not dextrous enough to dodge the possibility. “I met Jonathan Safran Foer, and I will tell you, he is not having shit between his brains. He is an ingenious Jew.”

His wayward use of English is sometimes nearly poetic. Back in Odessa, he walks to the beach to muse. “I love sitting on the edge of the land and feeling the water verge me.” More often, it achieves a cunning wit. His grandfather’s ungovernable dog, he remarks, “had been such a benign tumour all day”. His grumpy grandfather, he says, worked and lived independently until recently, “But now he is retarded and lives on our street”. And occasionally he comes up with a locution that is more accurate than anything a native speaker could manage. When he and the author reach the site of the village of Trachimbrod, they stand in front of a memorial to the murdered Jews who lived there. “We did not speak. It would have been a common indecency to speak.” (The author, we have been told many pages earlier, has taught him the idiom “common decencies”.)

His English has got better as the novel nears its ending and becomes more sombre, but Foer needs Alex’s ineloquent language for the description of the horror towards which we have known that we are heading. When we encounter the only living survivor of the massacre and she recalls what happened, we rely on Alex for a translation that is at once direct and properly clumsy. “It is not a thing that you can imagine,” she tells him, as if warning off a novelist who would try to represent such things. Thanks to Alex, he does not quite have to do this.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.

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